The Myth of Christianity Founding Modern Science and Medicine
(And the Hole Left by the Christian Dark Ages*)
Look up the Commentary by Jim Walker
Originated: 22 May 2007 , Additions/corrections: 20 Jan. 2010
See also Walker’s detailed rebuttal of one critique: http://nobeliefs.com/Flynn.htm
Walker takes Mike Flynn to task for his simplistic and woolly headed pride in the church’s contribution to modern science. I hated it and I liked it. Walker is great on details, but loses the point often. That’s OK, I am the opposite type, I need his clever searching, but not his cliff-hanging conclusions.
I have three problems with Walker’s historical argument.
1. He does not do history in certain key areas. I very much appreciate the detail he has gone into to reference and undo the loose arguments of those who claim too much for the Church. However, he maintains two non-historical arguments in full flight. Firstly, to blame the fall of the Roman Empire and the consequent (unscientific ) western Dark Ages on the work of Christianity is like blaming the bubonic plague on the rise of Christian funerals. Yes what we would call un-hygienic funerary practices do help to spread the disease but they are certainly not the singular cause. Second, the counter-vailing ‘myth of inevitable continuous scientific progress’ seems to be an assumption of modern science. Cultures and empires rise and fall. It takes a certain level of political stability and economy to hold up an educational edifice like Walker’s much beloved university science. These conditions regularly collapse, in part due to the loss of confidence by the populace in hegemonist thinkers like the late twentieth century’s version of logical positivists.
2. It is a diatribe. Walker approves of Confucian and Islamic works but specifically lampoons Christian works especially when they are not as complete or widespread as they later became. Yes his initial target is the claim that Christians invented science and maths and so on. It morphs into an attack on the church as purveyors of ‘superstition and dogma’. Apparently that’s the whole cause of the problem, an assumption he leaves untested, except that he thinks that is proven by his single interest in science. There are other disciplines, other causes, other lines of rational enquiry, and other processes in history. Further, if Confucian and Islamic science is approved, that puts the torch to his claim that it is religious belief or metaphysics that are the source of the problem.
He does undo the glib triumphalism of some who get a little bit of data and are proud of their church, a pride too often unmoderated by the many wrongs committed by the church. Walker has the same problem in reverse – nothing but the wrongs, and any rights are not allowed as evidence. What would happen to the institution of science if we were to speak of recent eugenics, older racism stemming from social Darwinism, even older alchemy, and even older sexism, and their many scientific justifications. It was current science who rejected Galileo just as much as the church. Just as Christianity has been reformed by returning to its own principles, so scientific rubbish is reformed by its own best methods, and usually, like Christianity, by a wakeup from external friends!
3. Therefore, for lack of clear headedness, Walker’s argument does not eventually defeat the claim that Christianity has been an ally of science and not always an enemy. Yes, the church’s addiction to neo-Platonic and Aristotelean scientific paradigms was a great impediment to the science of observation, and that it was pursued theologically and politically is a shame. Curious that the re-discovery of the same Aristotle was part of the Renaissance awakening of both science and humanities,this time, due to Carolingian universal education for boys, more people were free to read it. Yes, the pursuit of science has been common in all cultures, ancient records agree. Christianity did not have freehold of that enquiry. To say that other cultures thought of these things, and then forgot them, does not diminish the capacities or intent of those who re-discovered them. It simply says that ‘there is nothing new under the sun’, a quote from a Jewish book of the first millennium BCE, Ecclesiastes.
I conclude that the conditions that make science grow are much more complex. In our present age, science gallops in discoveries but schools are seeing a drop of enrolments. The edifice is teetering. Non-scientific medicines are big business. The assumption of progress is being tested, right when the world was hoping that science might save the planet from a crisping.
Theologically, progress requires a sense of stable universe, for which enquiry will be rewarded with consistent conclusions. Science won’t be done where multiple gods capriciously change things. China’s Confucian concept of Li and Qi provided that stability, as do Jewish, Christian and Islamic concepts of the one Creator.
Politically, the growth of science requires a population with an income well above subsistence, for a long period of time, and a cultural force towards both wide learning and a common language. In various times and places, as English and internet are that cultural force now, paper and Greek/Latin/Arabic once played that part. The growth of science also needs committed money and technical equipment, which has often come from the single minded commitment to new technology that operates during wars. If the twentieth century’s mechanized atrocities are a necessary part of the linear scientific progress that Walker supports, it makes ‘science’ the author of suffering such that the Crusades look like a school ground punch up.
Walker has done a good job at debunking some things, which I sincerely appreciate myself, do well to subject his own religion (modern science) to the same canons of historical judgement as he has used here.
Rev Dr Ian Robinson
University of Western Australia
Chaplains’ Web: www.spirituallife.uwa.edu.au
Ian’s Blog: www.wa.uca.org.au/uwachaplain
Ian’s Twitter: https://twitter.com/#!/UWAUCAchaplain
World Religions: http://www.symbaloo.com/mix/uwaucafrontpage